Marilyn, fifty years later

Inventing Marilyn

Marilyn_AF

Anyone who thinks the story of Marilyn Monroe doesn’t warrant such attention doesn’t know much about it.
By Caitlin Flanagan, TheAtlantic.com, February 20, 2013

Thump—it landed on the doorstep last summer like an abandoned baby: the newest biography of Marilyn Monroe, a bouncing 515 pages and obviously loved. Tucked between its covers were 51 pages of footnotes, an 88-person list of interviewees, a four-page guide to abbreviations and “manuscript collections consulted.” Had it found a forever family? Sadly, no; it had been left at yet another hateful group home. After some mild bureaucratic processing—its publicity materials and padded mailer confiscated and tossed in the recycling bin, its well of familiar photographs perfunctorily ticked through—it ended up on a shelf crammed with other Marilyn bios, some tall and lovely and filled with pictures, others squat and densely written, a few handsomely published and seemingly important. It would have to find its place.

But before any actual reading could begin—how quickly Marilyn herself had taken to serious books, and how quickly she’d abandoned them—real life had to be attended to, and it was the busy season: the summer months that begin with the anniversary of her birth and round with that of her death.

The new biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, is the work of Lois Banner, a historian at the University of Southern California who writes that she was propelled toward her subject because it had never been tackled by someone like her: “an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender.” The book took her 10 years to write, which is about how long it takes to read, albeit for the best possible reason: it is rigorously, at times obsessively, well researched. More appealingly, Banner’s academic orientation did not preclude her from going native. In the course of her work, she joined a Marilyn fan club, became a major collector of the star’s artifacts, contributed to a fund that paid for a new bench outside the Westwood crypt, and published a coffee-table book devoted to items from Marilyn’s personal archive. For those of us who love Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox constitutes an invaluable resource, a compendium of the latest discoveries, a settling of long-festering questions, and a thoughtful and thorough revisiting of the subjects we love most. For the general reader, however, the book will be overwhelming and impossible. How can a civilian be expected to care about the details of a real-estate deal that led to the 1910s development of the Whitley Heights tract in the Hollywood Hills? An introductory note is addressed, casually, to those “familiar with the biographical tradition on Monroe”; indeed, it is this tradition itself, more than any freshly excavated facts about the life, that demands a reckoning. Serious books about Marilyn number in the high hundreds, possibly the thousands; together they describe not just the transformation of a poor California girl into an international sex symbol but also the posthumous transformation of that sex symbol into something shockingly urgent, completely contemporary, and forever bankable.

Two years ago, moviegoers were made aware of an obscure account of a brush with Marilyn. The Prince, the Showgirl and Me is the diary of a young Englishman who signed on as an assistant for a Monroe film shooting outside London in 1956. A minor bit of business, it contains some wickedly apt observations—the author was the son of Lord Kenneth Clark—among them this hideously precise description of the young man’s first glimpse of the star: “She looked absolutely frightful … Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye.” The experience became the movie My Week With Marilyn, the critical success of which was grounded not just in Michelle Williams’s much-admired portrayal of the star but also in the general assumption that the source material provided something rare and therefore precious. Certainly there can’t be many firsthand reports of private time spent with an unguarded Marilyn Monroe? In fact, there are too many to count. The “Marilyn and me” genre is a significant one in this field; to have once teased the woman’s hair or hand-waxed her car was justification for running a few eager pages through the typewriter and seeing if anyone would bite. That the deeply personal revelation vouchsafed to the nearest stranger was her preferred mode of pleasantry eluded her confessors: each thought that he or she had been specially selected as kindred spirit; each felt anointed as a person of particular understanding of the mysterious and private woman. There are Marilyn memoirs written by her cook; her masseuse; her call-girl neighbor; the half-sister whom she met as a teenager; Lili St. Cyr’s fifth husband, who claims he brought the two women together in a three-way; Lee Strasberg’s jealous daughter; several of the photographers who shot her; men who claimed to be former lovers; former husbands—the list is endless. She lived in the days before the nondisclosure agreement became commonplace in Hollywood, and the trail of “As I remember her” dispatches (many of them legitimate, some of them surely hoaxes) reveals as much, to say nothing of the hundreds of detailed interviews granted over the years to players big and small. But this is just one branch of Marilynology. Also to be considered are the doorstop biographies and the pop bios, the luxe books of photographs and quotations, the novels inspired by her legend, the “What can it all mean?” reveries. Hers is the original True Hollywood Story, and that writers keep writing it and readers keep reading it, that studios keep optioning it and adapting it, that magazines keep telling it, while all around the world millions of people do their part to keep it alive—all of this reminds us that the life was not mere, that the scope of the legend is not preposterous. Anyone who thinks the story of Marilyn Monroe doesn’t warrant attention doesn’t know much about it; at every turn and in every moment, she was doing something either to align herself with an important part of the culture or to impress herself imperishably upon it.

Marilyn Monroe was baptized by Aimée Semple McPherson, analyzed by Anna Freud, befriended by Carl Sandburg and Edith Sitwell, romanced (if you can call it that) by Jack and Bobby Kennedy, painted by Willem de Kooning, taught acting by Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg, photographed by Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She managed—on the strength of limited dramatic talent and within a studio system that paid no attention to individual ambition—to work with some of the greatest directors in movie history: twice with John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, and once each with George Cukor, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Laurence Olivier. She was the first Playboy centerfold and one of the first women to own her own production company; she was a nudist and a champion of free love long before these concepts emerged into the national consciousness. She maintained a deep association with the American military that, all on its own, lent her a mythic stature. When the Second World War broke out, she became both a teenage war bride and an actual Rosie the Riveter (long days spent working in the fuselage-varnishing room of the Radioplane plant in Burbank); her first cheesecake photographs were taken in the spirit of “morale boosters” for the boys overseas; her famous appearance in Korea—wriggling onstage in her purple sequined dress, popping her glorious platinum head out of the hatch of the camouflaged touring tank rolling her to the next appearance—remains the standard against which any American sex symbol sent to entertain the troops is measured. She was the first celebrity to talk openly about her childhood sexual abuse, a kind of admission that has become so common today that we hardly take notice of it. But to tell reporters in the 1950s that you had been raped as an 8-year-old—and to do so without shame, but rather with a justifiable sense of fury and vengeance—was a breathtaking act of self-assurance.

Few adults have had less impetus to become serious readers—her people rarely ventured beyond Science and Health; a studio doctor once diagnosed her as dyslexic—but she tried again and again to read the great books, holing herself up in bedrooms with Dexedrine and champagne and willing herself through Antigone. She may have rarely finished the volumes she attempted, but she thought reading was an important and ennobling enterprise, and she gave it her all. When she died, her possessions included—along with a famously meager assortment of battered kitchen utensils and down-at-the-heels Ferragamos, a broken Golden Globe, some pottery and serapes she’d hauled back from Mexico with the vague idea of decorating her last house in the hacienda style—an astonishing collection of books. She had Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, Robert Frost and William Blake, a book on snobbery and the 1836 album of the Garrick Club. She was the stroke-book queen of the 1950s, stretched nude and willing on red crushed velvet, and yet she was the Hollywood actress most interested in intellectual life and in intellectuals, committing herself to method acting and psychoanalysis, plugging away at Crime and Punishment, and marrying (I don’t mean to imply she had some kind of native genius for all this) Arthur Miller. She loved dogs and cats and children, and all her life she had the foster child’s animal craving for family, so she was forever inserting herself into other people’s stable households—moving in with her drugs and her sexual eagerness, her kitten sweetness and her blinding anger, her father fixation and her nighttime wanderings—and wreaking havoc on them. With the trembling lip and laughably bad line readings of her earliest days, she should have been washed‑up from week one. What would she do, an early pal earnestly asked her, if 50 percent of the experts in Hollywood told her she didn’t have any talent? “If 100 percent told me that,” she replied, “100 percent would be wrong.”

And then, just like that, a few months after her 36th birthday, she was gone—the brilliant platinum head yanked back down the hatch forever. Never has death been so good for the back catalog. Billy Wilder was correct in the one compliment he reliably paid her: she really did have perfect timing. Almost as soon as she’d choked down the last of the Nembutal, the culture took a sharp turn away from everything she seemed to represent. Think of it this way: at the time of her suicide, the Rolling Stones had just played their first gig; Timothy Leary was two years into his experiments with LSD; and the Vietnam War was about to turn a pinup girl’s visit to the troops into a sexually reactionary act, so there would have been only a slow, ugly death coming for her if she hadn’t cashed out when she did. The next few years made a mockery of women like her, banishing them to television variety shows and gag roles: the bottle blonde with the chinchilla stole and the sugar daddy, stuck like a La Brea Tar Pit mammoth in the hardening pastel Bakelite of ’50s populuxe. Only a veterinary-level dose of barbiturates stood between Marilyn and a second callback for Eva Gabor’s role on Green Acres. Maybe she even saw it coming: “Please don’t make me a joke,” she is supposed to have said, not long before the end.

And so began the hibernation of Marilyn Monroe, starting off with a New York Times obituary printed the day after her death that clearly understood she was a phenomenon—the “golden girl of the movies”—but casually listed her measurements as a relevant matter of public record, marveled at her “flesh impact,” and mentioned by name only four of her movies: one she’d been fired from, one in which she’d had a tiny part, one that was apparently significant only because it had led a deranged Turk to slit his wrists while watching it, and one bona fide stinker, which she’d caused to go $1 million over budget. In essence, the obituary correctly identified her—as Gloria Steinem, conducting a very different bit of business, would also later identify her—as a minor American actress.

And so she slept, the minor actress, while the country began its forgetting of her and DiMaggio’s roses wilted, week after week, out in the Westwood sun. Elizabeth Taylor ballooned into sexual irrelevance and Eva flattered Arnold the pig, and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” offered up a kind of sexuality that seemed, on the surface of things, completely foreign to the one Marilyn had purveyed. Better, too, that she missed the moldering decline of those with whom she had been young: Joltin’ Joe putting on a cardigan and turning into Mr. Coffee; Jane Russell tugging at her giant Playtex bra as the full-figured gal; Arthur Miller becoming even more Arthur Miller than ever. Time passed and passed, until the strange and wonderful year of 1973 rolled around, and Marilyn Monroe was located by the strangest search-and-rescue team in history: Norman Mailer and Elton John.

Mailer appoints himself, in Marilyn: A Biography, the “psychohistorian,” which was one of the few job openings available on the project, given that he had brazenly—and, as it would turn out, scandalously—farmed out the role of actual historian to Fred Guiles, the author of the one significant biography that had been published since the star’s death, Norma Jean. That book is an old-school movie-star bio, and a generally excellent one; what a pity that it’s rarely read. Nonhysterical, unburdened by the notion that the subject was anything more or less than a Hollywood star with a singularly interesting life, Norma Jean is mostly right on the big things while always fascinating on the small ones. It was written at a time when many of the players were not yet wary of the press, and were in fact eager to tell their stories. Come across some interesting fact about Marilyn Monroe’s life nowadays—that her first groom’s white jacket got splashed with tomato soup at the reception, or that her mother used to pick her up from her boardinghouse on the weekends to go to Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte—and nine times out of 10, you can trace it back to Guiles. Or, as Mailer would have it, Guiles’s work is “of much estimable value for verifying the events of her life,” surely the loosest interpretation of the term verifying on record. “The final virtue of Norma Jean,” says Mailer, “is that a great biography might be constructed on its foundations.” What is a “great” Marilyn biography? One that dwells on the similar letters in the subject’s name and his own (“If the ‘a’ were used twice and the ‘o’ but once,” he ponders, they would spell out his own name, “leaving only the ‘y’ ”); that vets the nutty possibility that she had been killed by the Kennedys, in a sort of single-Nembutal conspiracy theory; and that stirs everything together with a heaping helping of Norman Mailer deep-think:

In her ambition, so Faustian, and in her ignorance of culture’s dimensions, in her liberation and her tyrannical desires, her noble democratic longings intimately contradicted by the widening pool of her narcissism (where every friend and slave must bathe), we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves, our exaggerated and now all but defeated generation, yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the Fifties, and left a message for us in her death, “Baby go Boom.”

In short, Mailer’s book was brilliant stuff because, in its incomprehensible badness, it performed a bit of wizardry: it turned the life and times of Marilyn Monroe into weighty material. In her New York Times review, Pauline Kael writes that Mailer “pumps so much wind into his subject that the reader may suspect that he’s trying to make Marilyn Monroe worthy of him, a subject to compare with the Pentagon and the moon.” It’s the moon-size Marilyn, brought to us by the periphrastic bard of Provincetown, whom we have inherited.

For its part, “Candle in the Wind,” in which Elton John inhabits the lyrics of Bernie Taupin, performed the next important bit of work: repackaging Marilyn as someone deeply relevant to young people—not just a moving-picture idol from their parents’ drippy, musty past, but someone whose life was a blank canvas of unjust suffering onto which angry teens could cast their own ’70s-size collections of slights and sorrows. Taupin has said that the inspiration for the song came from a remark he heard after Janis Joplin’s death—that she was like a “candle in the wind”—but he had probably also read the Guiles book, a chapter of which is called “Goodbye, Norma Jean.” The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

Just don’t watch the movies! She has her moments in The Misfits, and she does something interesting and often affecting in Bus Stop—but no one could call those great films. And there’s an awful lot of rotten tomatoes in the oeuvre, pictures she tried her best to save but didn’t know how. Have you ever seen her wandering around in Niagara, with her pastel suits and zombie stare, like a My Little Pony on Thorazine? Or mewing her kitten mew in The Seven Year Itch? But all is redeemed with Some Like It Hot, which I first saw a very long time ago and which converted me forever.

When I was 13, I owned a copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which my sister had given me as a Christmas present, and a copy of Marilyn: A Biography, which friends had given my parents as a gag gift and I had promptly liberated from the coffee table, not seeing it as ridiculous at all, but rather as deep and tragic and life-changing (the book’s ideal reader, it turns out, is the 13-year-old girl). I can remember sitting on the nubby brown couch in the living room, listening to “Candle in the Wind” over and over, and turning the pages of the book to look at all the portraits of my new heroine: the ballerina sitting, the Something’s Got to Give nudes, the preposterous pictures from her early teenage years, when she didn’t look any more beautiful than I did, which was not very beautiful at all. Maybe there was hope for plain girls everywhere; maybe magic could happen to anyone. So I was already enchanted, already on the road to losing my heart to her, when I came home from school to an empty house one day, clicked on the TV, and lo and behold: Some Like It Hot.

She was at her worst making that movie: late as hell, unprepared, incapable of remembering her lines, sick from pregnancy, and tanked up on vodka and pills, all the time willing to tease and taunt people until they were on their last nerve. Billy Wilder told Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon that they’d better keep their fingers out of their unmentionables whenever they were on camera, because “anytime she gets it right, I’m going to print it.” But it’s the only movie she ever made that fires on all cylinders: a perfect script, co-stars who were better than she was, a role that let her play dumb without in any way giving a dumb performance. The part also came with a sad past, as had so many of her signature roles, but this was the only past set in the midst of not a drama but a comedy, which was a fair approximation of the whole Monroe enterprise: It’s been a kick in the head, this sorry life, but why not have another drink and laugh about it?

This was also the movie that most directly benefited from her association with Lee Strasberg, because for once in his life the old windbag gave an actor a specific bit of advice about a particular role, one that could carry her through the whole picture. The reason Sugar Kane latches on so quickly to Josephine and Daphne, he told her, is because they’re nice to her; they want to be her friends. The defining aspect of Sugar’s existence is her terrible loneliness, the raw injustice that such a sweet and trusting person should be cut off from human friendship and affection. From the minute she first encounters Curtis and Lemmon, who do not mean her well, she turns to them; she’s like a pure light pouring over the screen, her radiant happiness at their friendship an illuminating force. “I got a cold chill,” said the first man who ever saw Monroe on film, the cameraman who shot her first screen test. “This is the first girl who looked like one of those lush stars from the silent era.” More than any other role she ever played, Marilyn Monroe was Sugar Kane: manipulative and kind, innocent and mercenary, madcap and melancholy, and most of all desperately lonely. I remember watching her that school-day afternoon and falling a little bit in love with her. “She was so seductive,” Strasberg’s son said of her, “that she made you feel like you were the only person who could save her.”

That was Marilyn Monroe’s shtick and her truth, and it’s still selling books and calendars and posters, still filling up Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. She was the girl who always got the fuzzy end of the lollipop, the abandoned baby and the mean foster kid and the woman who took off her clothes for the camera when she felt like it. I drive past the old Hollygrove orphanage two or three times a week, and usually I don’t give it a second thought. But sometimes I think of that 9-year-old girl, dropped off screaming but forced to stay, and I think of the astonishing fact that somewhere between Hollygrove and the Hollywood Studio Club, which she moved into at 20, she dried off her tears and stopped believing in the realities of this ugly old world, made up her own set of rules and played by them. If 100 percent of the men in movies told her she had no talent, she decided, 100 percent of them would be wrong.

*

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by LOIS BANNER

Reviewed by Tom Carson, BarnesandNobleReview.com

The exasperating possibility that Marilyn Monroe was trivial is plainly an idea doomed to never get much traction in American culture. In the half century since her death after ingesting too much Nembutal at age thirty-six —  her final pratfall, or was it suicide? Could it have been. . . murder? — she’s probably put in more time getting pawed by theorists on posterity’s casting couch than any actress in history. 

For Monroe’s interpreters, it’s never enough to view her as touching, pitiable, gallant, an unprofessional pain in the keister (she was), or even just sexy, her cramping but vivid onscreen calling card. No matter who’s doing the decoding, she has to be made to represent something. And that something has to reverberate, even though the cost to her humanity sometimes doesn’t seem all that different from the way Hollywood used to treat her. 

And so much for airing my prejudices. I just figure I’m better off acknowledging that I didn’t approach Lois Banner’s billowy, often irritatingly preening, but ultimately engrossing Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox with the mind vacuumed perfectly free of invidious prior assumptions that reviewers are supposed to aspire to. Still, when Marilyn’s the topic, who can?

Banner’s intent isn’t as unprecedented as she affects to think. She wants to rescue Monroe the “trickster” — self-aware parodist of her own allure, overlooked pre-counterculture rebel, manipulator rather than prisoner of her image, and so on —  from her old gig as a victimized sex object, thereby transforming her into the icon for women she once was to men. In vogue since Madonna turned “empowering” into the ultimate cliché in gender studies, this sort of reclamation job, as Banner herself notes, represents a 180-degree turn away from the attitudes of 1970s feminism’s leading lights. With other priorities in mind — e.g., convincing the rest of us that sexism really existed — they were inclined, you could say, to throw out the interview along with the centerfold. 


That Monroe was a parody of midcentury pulchritude isn’t in much doubt. Banner’s contention that it was a conscious and witty one isn’t unilluminating, particularly when she traces its origins to Norma Jeane’s — as she was then — 1946 attendance at a performance by female impersonator Ray Bourbon. “[She] liked Bourbon’s humor; she saw how comedy could be created by exaggerating gender roles, playing with femininity as though it were a masquerade. It was a lesson she would never forget.” Still, that last assertion begs for some kind of documentation, which — as is often the case when Banner makes this kind of claim — isn’t forthcoming. 

The same goes for the aspect of The Passion and the Paradoxthat’s snared the most advance attention — that is, Banner’s revelation of Marilyn’s lesbian tendencies. Somewhat surprisingly for the time, Monroe did acknowledge having them, and yet — the usual Hollywood rumor mill aside — there’s no real evidence she ever acted on them. (Her intimate and somewhat murky dependence on acting coach Natasha Lytess is the best card Banner has to play, but it’s far from conclusive.) Yet that doesn’t stop our biographer from increasingly treating her own guesswork as fact, culminating in the flat statement near the book’s end that Monroe “preferred [my italics] women as sexual partners.” Restraint isn’t her specialty.

Monroe’s sex life with men, which was voluminous, leaves Banner’s analysis riding madly off in all directions. At times, she pushes the argument that Marilyn’s promiscuity came out of a “free love” philosophy that serenely blended sex with friendship, making her a suitably valiant avatar for sexual revolutions to come. Yet at other times, her sexuality is variously — and  somewhat more convincingly — depicted as neurotic, compulsive, and either helpless or calculating. All these behaviors, as Banner notes, fit the pattern for a victim of early sexual abuse, which Marilyn was. All this exemplifies the conflict between propagandizing for Monroe as a symbol and trying to understand her as a human being. 

Banner also doesn’t seem to know all that much about movies, aside from Marilyn’s own. I’m not sure where she got the idea that film noir “was an outgrowth of post-World War Two anxiety over the Cold War,” a description that much more soundly fits 1950s sci-fi. It’s silly to say that Cinemascope spectacles like The Robe were made “for conservatives,” as if that were a category separable from the huge audience for biblical epics at the time. Elsewhere, she tries to make Monroe out as a pioneer in taking control of her career by forming her own production company, but that was hardly uncommon as the studio system’s iron grip turned more butterfingered. Even Jayne Mansfield had one. 

Banner’s most annoying tic is that she can’t stop boasting. “I am the first to describe. . . Significant among my discoveries. . . Revealing and analyzing [Monroe’s] multiple personas is a major contribution of mine to Marilyn scholarship. . . I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me — an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender — had studied her. . . Throughout my book I present a new Marilyn, different from any previous portrayal of her.” This kind of rodomontade clutters her book’s prologue to the point that you  wonder how you’ll stand spending 515 pages in this woman’s company, and the self-congratulatory tone keeps recurring later on. By way of a bonus, she fills us in on another reason for her affinity with Marilyn: “Blonde and blue-eyed, I had her body dimensions and won beauty contests.” Oh.


Throughout the book, her theorizing about Monroe’s significance can feel like all chalk and no blackboard. But the good news is that Banner is hardly the first writer to misjudge her own gifts. Whenever she gives her various agendas a rest and just tries to absorb us in Marilyn’s never uninteresting life,Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox gets a lot better. The research has depth, and the choices about how to use it often have bite. The portraits are vivid. Best of all, Banner’s ample use of fresh and often piquant detail brightens up even the most familiar parts of the story. 

Actually, nearly all of it is familiar, thanks in large part to Marilyn herself. Few stars before her had been so ready to treat fame as an ongoing psychiatry session about a  traumatic childhood. Brought into this world minus a known-for-sure dad by a Christian Scientist mother whose mental instability (and, possibly, resentments) plunked Norma Jeane into no less than eleven foster homes, she was married off at sixteen to a dumb but kind lug named Jim Dougherty — the equivalent, in the sexual history of the twentieth century, of early Beatles drummer Pete Best. That their wedding was attended by half a dozen of her foster mothers evokes her topsy-turvy upbringing in a nutshell. 

Then Jim went off to war in the Merchant Marine, and photographers with an eye for cheesecake began flocking around. (Banner’s brisk explanation of the difference between fashion and pin-up models — and why Marilyn, ill suited for one, was ideal for the other — is a nice piece of quickie cultural sociology.) In 1949, one of them shot the famous nude calendar pics that marked the dawn of Marilyn-the-icon and threatened her future at 20th Century Fox once it became known, some years later, she’d posed for them. Incidentally, it’s kind of a bummer to learn that one of the funniest things she said at the press conference that salvaged her budding career — asked what she had on during the shoot, she answered, “The radio” — was a canned line thought up by columnist Sidney Skolsky. But with the nudie calendar safely turned to her advantage, 1953’sGentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionairecemented her box-office appeal while defining the blonde-ditz persona she came to lament. 

Banner is often at her best when she’s assessing the men in Monroe’s life — all substitute father figures, to be sure, but also likely to end up tormented if not emasculated when they got recast in her mind as oppressive ones, something they inevitably did. Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees legend who married Monroe in 1954, eludes Banner to some extent, not least because to say that verbalization wasn’t his thing is an understatement. But she’s shrewd anyway about how marrying DiMaggio immunized Marilyn from her mottled past: “Whatever sins Marilyn had committed, Joe’s reputation for virtue cancelled them.”

On the other hand, Monroe’s third and final hubby — playwright Arthur Miller — rates a full-scale, fascinating, frequently unpleasant portrait. Among other acts of caddishness, he had a habit of leaving nasty things he’d written about her lying around where she couldn’t fail to read them: an early version of his play After the Fall, a journal entry reading, “I’ve done it again. I thought I was marrying an angel, and find I’ve married a whore.” (That he was capable of thinking in such categories may remind some of us of our preference for Tennessee Williams as a dramatist.)  Yet since he prized his dignity above all else, it’s hard to stay completely unsympathetic to his distress at being reduced to a glorified gofer even as he strove to turn his wayward wife into St. Marilyn in his screenplay for The Misfits, her last completed film. Both of them, as Banner puts it, were “idealists trying to discipline and refine their emotions as well as narcissists promoting careers that could easily go sour.”

Unsurprisingly, the Kennedys — with whom Marilyn’s legend will be entwined until doomsday — do not come off well. After decades of obfuscation, it’s now widely accepted that she had liaisons with both Jack and brother Bobby. It’s considered possible, at least, that the latter if not the former played some role in precipitating her death. Forty years ago, Norman Mailer’s speculations in his huff-puffing Marilyn that she’d been knocked off to hush her up were universally derided, but clearly times have changed. 

Banner’s version of what might have happened on or just before August 4, 1962, is an orgy of hypothetical conspiracies mixed up with some intriguing circumstantial evidence and too many cooks to keep straight, not to mention an ill-mannered digression that takes swipes at a fellow gumshoe on the trail. It’s not quite clear whether she actually believes Monroe’s death was murder or Bobby was involved. But it’s interesting to learn that DiMaggio did think the Kennedys were culpable in some way. 


Was Monroe a good actress? Might she have become a great one if the studio had cast her in the dramatic roles she craved instead of pigeonholing her as a comic sexpot? Depending on your point of view, those questions are either vital or gloriously irrelevant. Whatever she had — and it may come down to the simple fact that, faults and all, she was a magical camera subject — I’m reasonably sure we got most of it. 

Discounting those heartless enough to suspect it would have been the funniest movie of her career, nobody sane can feel much regret that she never got to play the part she lobbied hardest for: Grushenka, in The Brothers Karamazov. Those lumbering adaptations of classic novels were the bane of Hollywood at midcentury, and Some Like It Hot — the greatest movie Monroe ever appeared in — is for good reason more remembered. 

Even granting that defense lawyers have lots of leeway in making their case, Banner’s idea that Marilyn’s troubles on the set of more than one movie were due to her “perfectionism” — pitched  too high for even Billy Wilder or Otto Preminger to appreciate, apparently — is risible. Making movies with her was hell, for the simple reasons that she kept showing up late, disrespecting her co-stars and directors, and flubbing even her simplest lines. Her Brobdingnagian drug intake didn’t help. Why insist that she was somehow in control when every anecdote suggests that she’d have been flummoxed by the difficulties of running a Wendy’s franchise in Sheboygan? Far more intriguing is Banner’s notion that she might have been a better actress in private life than she was on the screen. 

It would make better sense to argue that Monroe’s faltering style ended up adding a provocatively human, troublingly vulnerable — and, yes, proto-feminist — dimension to otherwise coarse and sexist one-joke roles. But that Kim Novak gambit has nothing to do with the kind of conscious innovation that lit-crits call agency. In her review of Mailer’s Marilyn, Pauline Kael suggested that Monroe — far from being the last of the classic movie stars — prefigured Andy Warhol’s amateurish zombies. Translation: even her modernity was involuntary. 

However — and even though I don’t think it was Banner’s intent — I do owe her for crystallizing an unease I’ve always felt about Monroe’s appeal. The way Shirley Temple’s name keeps cropping up as a point of comparison had me recalling the legendary trouble Graham Greene got into in the 1930s for remarking on the erotic side of Temple’s cutesy posturing. Twenty years later, Marilyn wasn’t Temple grown up so much as a far more infantile and helpless — but permissibly desirable — caricature of childhood. The effect is sharpened by how often her screen persona seems one step removed from abject panic, if not terror. Far be it from me to wonder if American males at midcentury were harboring some secret mass fantasy of sublimated pedophilia. All the same, making the ultimate sex goddess out of someone whose consent wasn’t informed on the best day of her life may be enough to give us the retrospective creeps.

*

Marilyn Monroe was exploited in life, in film and in print. Here, finally, is a book by Lois Banner, that does not sensationalise her erratic and exotic life, but reveals her as the damaged, childlike and lost feminist she was, says Tanya Gold.

Marilyn Monroe was a construct and it is hard to write about her without sounding like a drug addict or a rapist, which is probably what she wanted. It is typical to begin a piece about her with something like, “I’m not enough of a hack to write about Marilyn Monroe but…” and then dive into the myth. The most important facts are: she was a brilliant comedian who mocked the sex doll manqué that was American ultra-femininity in the Fifties, even as she was its greatest incarnation. She was (effectively) an orphan. She was ambitious. She was kind-hearted. She was pornographic. She was a drug addict. She died at 36, and she may have been murdered because she threatened to expose JFK and his brother Robert, both of whom she was sleeping with; if not, she killed herself. This is the chaos the biographer finds.

The Passion and the Paradox is an excellent book, because it does not exploit the woman whose clothes fell off; it is a book one can read without self-disgust. Lois Banner is a feminist and historian who manages to write about Monroe without drooling, weeping or turning it into a movie. Anthony Summers’s 1985 biography was riveting, but it was film noir and it was called Goddess. (It should have been called “Addict”.) This is a detailed narrative that does not scream with hyperbole, or moan with lust. It is much sadder than that.

Who was she? An abandoned child, says Banner, alternately driven and heartbroken. She quotes Elia Kazan, Monroe’s lover: “The talent, the genius, is the scab on the wound, there to protect a weak place, an opening to death…” Her mother, Gladys, went insane when Marilyn was eight. She never met her father, who was probably a man called Stanley Gifford; when she was older, she used to telephone him, and Gifford’s wife would scream and hang up. (On his death bed Gifford claimed her, but the reader always wants to say to Monroe’s men – not good enough, too late.) She lived in orphanages and with foster families (some gave her God, others groping). She says she was raped when she was eight, and she was not believed. She married at 16 and left when she discovered the camera and a job where she could, with the cracked bliss of Electra, call her lovers “Daddy”.

It is fascinating watching Monroe look for recognition, which she thought was fame. She shifted, manipulated and slept her way to it and she always found new families to replace the one that never was. For Banner, Fifties Hollywood is a grotesque place; after reading, I wanted to go there, and burn it down. This is why Louis B Mayer hated the movie about movies Sunset Boulevard and told its writer, Billy Wilder, “You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” It nails the sexual exploitation. Monroe didn’t want to be “an erotic freak… a celluloid aphrodisiac”, but they wanted it, and she complied, with a dreamy compulsion that terrified her friends.

A studio executive told a journalist: “We have a new girl on the lot, with something unusual. Instead of sticking straight out, her tits tilt up.” Then he sent for Marilyn and pulled her top up; Marilyn, the journalist said, “never stopped smiling”. She had her revenge, though – once famous, she dragged ghoulish (female) acting coaches on to the set to maim (male) directors, and she was always late.

She married and divorced two famous men – Joe DiMaggio, the baseball player, and Arthur Miller, the playwright. DiMaggio had her followed for the rest of her life; Miller called her, with unforgivable simplicity for a public intellectual, a whore. He didn’t write about her for years – maybe this is why? By this point, death seemed inevitable, because Monroe’s attempt to redeem herself, to be, at last, wanted, had misfired. Fame is not a substitute for a coherent self, and Monroe, no matter how much she tried, never found one; being the hottest woman in cinema was just another act of self-evasion.

Drugs took her further away, and although Bobby Kennedy was at her home the day she died, I think she overdosed. Some people don’t need to be murdered, because the job is done in childhood. All this Banner tells coolly, making the case for Monroe the feminist, because she named her sexual abuse and stood up to the studios. I think this is true, even if she was broken; as her co-stars in Monkey Business said, she was “half child, but not the half that shows”.

MarilynMonroe

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